A Beginning Farmer’s Path to Leadership

My path into farming began as a 32-year-old, married father of two, living in Omaha, Nebraska. The only hands-on knowledge of farming I had was from detasseling corn a single summer in Grand Island, Nebraska, in high school and driving grain trucks during harvest for my father-in-law whenever I could use vacation days to help.

Article by David Junker - McCook, Nebraska

My path into farming began as a 32-year-old, married father of two, living in Omaha, Nebraska. The only hands-on knowledge of farming I had was from detasseling corn a single summer in Grand Island, Nebraska, in high school and driving grain trucks during harvest for my father-in-law whenever I could use vacation days to help.

Then, an opportunity to move my family 280 miles and begin farming with my in-laws in southwest Nebraska was offered.

My wife and I had great jobs—she was a respiratory therapist and I was a restaurant manager. We had wonderful friends and built a new home in the city we had loved for 10 years. Even so, it was an easy decision to make. A chance to raise our boys in a community of 8,000 versus 800,000 people had us pretty excited to offer them a childhood like our own.

To say I was nervous making a leap into farming would be an understatement. I cannot say with certainty that if I knew beforehand the broad swath of knowledge needed to farm I would have been so keen to start.

There were things I expected to learn such as operating tractors and combines and the implements that attach to them, planting and harvesting crops and fertilizing. But there was far more knowledge I needed to gain such as mechanical skills, the broad range of chemicals and the various applications they serve, soil health and temperatures, plant health, accounting, international grain markets and so much more.

It was extremely overwhelming without having any background in agriculture to make sense of it all right away. Luckily, I had a patient father-in-law who also happens to be an excellent dryland farmer with over 40 years of experience. He has shared his land, equipment, knowledge and time with me, and I couldn’t ask for a better mentor and business partner.

Together we farm 1,500 dryland acres, rotating grain sorghum, wheat, corn and soybeans. We are slowly incorporating my two boys in our operations by allowing them to drive tractors and help with repairs.

Although I have a great second-generation farmer helping me everyday, initially, I didn’t have much confidence in my farming skills and knowledge. Whenever we would go to any farming related programs, I would either hang close to my father-in-law or choose a seat at the end of a table in hopes I wouldn’t be drawn into a conversation about farming that would make me look dumb and incompetent.

Being around groups of life-long farmers, agriculturally college-educated farmers, and even generational family members who knew more than me brought out anxiety I hadn’t felt since 8th grade speech class.

This wasn’t going to work for me if I truly wanted to have the confidence to run the farm and teach my boys the trade, so I decided to suppress my introverted tendencies and talk to some local farmers my age who were on commodity boards about all aspects of farming to increase my knowledge. They were extremely helpful as most farmers are.

My first chance for growth came with the Syngenta Leadership At Its Best program in Washington, D.C.,  representing the National Association of Wheat Growers. Over the course of five days, my class (16 people representing various wheat groups) was taught how to become better leaders, better listeners and communicators and even how to lobby. It was a great program that really helped me overcome some of my fears of interacting with leaders in agribusiness.

My second chance came a couple of years later when I was encouraged to apply for Leadership Sorghum, Class IV. When I was chosen as the only Nebraskan to join a group from Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, I was ecstatic.

This was the program I was looking for as we not only had the opportunity to learn leadership skills, but we also got to see firsthand the entire life and economic cycle of sorghum.

Our class experienced seed breeding in Texas, witnessed sorghum being turned into human food products in Kansas, went to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and saw the ports that handle grain in New Orleans to name a few highlights. This phenomenal program is not only educational but also helps paves the way for my success in life on and off the farm.

I am extremely thankful to have met all the wonderful people at the National Sorghum Producers and the Sorghum Checkoff, and I feel grateful for the time and resources they have put into the program. When graduation for my class rolls around in December, I’ll be happy to see all of my new friends but sad the 15-month journey will be over.

Farming can be an extremely solitary profession. We work long hours in tractors, combines, setting water, checking fields and more. Sometimes waving at a car passing by the field or going to a seed agronomy meeting might be our only social contact outside of our family.

I’ve learned through these programs that we need to have friends that will continue to push us outside of our comfort zone and to make new friends and contacts that will help us try new ideas any time we can. Also, going to any and all kinds of programs and meetings, participating in discussions and asking questions helped me.

My knowledge and confidence have both vastly improved because of the Leadership Sorghum program, and I am looking forward to using them as a newly appointed board member of the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board. In my new position, I am hoping to help other people enter farming. I want to help take away some of the fears I initially faced, give them any contacts I have, if I can’t help directly, and educate those outside agriculture, showing them the positive things we do. Once I finally realized all farmers have a wealth of knowledge and are more than willing to share it, if you’re willing to ask, my fears and anxieties subsided.

Looking back, my wife and I are proud of the decision we made to move our family despite the obstacles. It has been a blessing to our family, and we are grateful to be considered grassroots of the sorghum community.

David farms with his wife and family in southwest Nebraska, growing corn, sorghum, wheat and soybeans. He is a member of Leadership Sorghum Class IV and will graduate from the program in December 2019. He was also recently appointed to the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board.


This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 Issue of Sorghum Grower magazine as a Feature story.